Walk in the Woods

"a vestige of a time when candles only burned at one end..."

By DAVE ETTER* / Photograph courtesy of Albert Lee

shunpiking, november 1996, No. 9

Often ancient roadways become exposed as new highways bisect the old in their mad dash across the province. These openings have become invisible with overgrowth and, as you speed by on your way to the office, are difficult to see. The gentle, curving, shaded trails winding slowly around the hills instead of through them are a contrast to the harsh, exposed rock cliffs created by the new super highways.

Jumping across the new ditch, ducking under a fallen tree to investigate a dark hole in the otherwise seamless sheet of forest branches, you are suddenly standing in the centre of a moss-covered old woods road.

You know it was a busy trail. The ditches are well-constructed, the bridge is made of large stones, and the banks are edged in large rocks. The ruts in the hard surface tell of much traffic in years gone past. You look a long way down these pathways -- one hundred years or more. A short walk takes you quickly away from the traffic.

It is late Autumn, and already you are surrounded by warm smells; gentle breezes carry the calls of a solitary raven or perhaps a squirrel perched on the branches above. After walking for a half hour or so, you may come to a clearing on the side of a hill, overlooking a river.

As you look back from whence you came, you may see father returning from town, having sold the old cow. He has some money now; money to buy those curtains his wife has long wanted. Strolling a little further, you come across an old cemetery, or a stone foundation. Sitting there quietly on the hillside, the beautiful view is almost obscured by aging hardwoods now almost shown or their red and golden canopy. The lingering heat of fall sun makes you drowsy. You can again see the farmer, scythe in hand, swiping down in great, smooth strokes the winter fodder needed to feed the five or six head of cattle in the barn. A stone fence, now just so much rubble, draws you to another depression surrounded by collapsed rocks -- probably the barn. You could almost see the man and his boy working so hard to carefully place each large flat stone, hoping to secure his families' unsure future.

Sitting under an ancient apple tree, unpicked by human hands for probably fifty years, there is evidence of deer trails, and circles of flattened grass dapple a quiet field, now reclaimed by the forest's denizens. You wonder what unfortunate circumstances must have occurred to cause this farm to become abandoned. Did the father die early, forcing the mother to move to the city? Was it the Great War, the great migration to the "Boston States"? An accident in the barn? Did the kids move away after school? Did none of the children want the hardscrabble life? Did the kids ever come back and visit mom and dad ... or just mom? Was there a sunny day in July when her daughter drove up in her care to take mother away for the last time? Away to a city in Upper Canada, leaving the house, all the years of memories, the collective experience and the secrets not even the animals remembered?

Those precious curtains are faded and tattered now from years of blowing in the wind. They still carry a vestige of a time when candles only burned at one end, when neighbours helped and cared for one another.

If you go

Several back roads are neat but are not necessarily long trips. First of all you need the 1992 edition of the Nova Scotia Map Book (topo); keep in mind I have not been on this particular road for ten years. Page 20, coordinates D-1 at Centre Rawdon. On Highway 14 heading west one comes upon a cute little museum of sorts; the "Little red Schoolhouse" located on the left-hand side of the road at Centre Rawdon. Turning sharp left here, there is a narrow gravel road leading down into a ravine. After a short drive to the southeast, a sharp turn to the right leads you down over a narrow bridge spanning a beautiful deep gorge. Not many people know of this road, thank goodness. There are rundown old farms and plenty of places to get out and take a pleasant walk through this quiet countryside.
*In a former life Dave Etter was a car rally buff and pharmacist in Shubenacadie and founder of Mahone Bay Kayak Adventures.

Special thanks to Lorna Mattie & Barbara Winkler of Inverness County for use of their photos.